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Six Little Lines of Code

Tao Yue

So two people have written yet another program to crack DVD encryption. The code is 472 bytes long and takes up six lines. There are almost as many symbols as there are letters and numbers, and the code is so obfuscated that even experienced Perl programmers have trouble deciphering it. Why on earth should the average MIT student care?

Well, you could care because two MIT affiliates, SIPB members Keith Winstein and Marc Horowitz, wrote it. You could care because it could drag the Institute’s name into a lawsuit with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). But more than that, you can and should care because the code to grpff is a blow in the battle for freedom, a small victory against corporate greed and tyrannical governmental legislation. However, it is difficult to rally people to a cause using abstract principles. Instead, I’ll appeal to our common-sense principles of justice.

Basically, these boil down to the idea of good faith in executing a transaction. When you go to a restaurant, you pay for the food. Likewise, a computer store can’t sell you a laptop and give you a Handspring Visor instead. That’s just common sense.

When it comes to intellectual property such as motion pictures, the consumer buys not just the physical medium, but the right to access the content. When you buy a DVD, the movie studio gets paid for the DVD, and you get a license to watch the movie on the DVD for as long as you live -- a fair transaction.

However, the movie studios’ DVD Content Scrambling System (CSS) unbalances that transaction. You still pay them money, and you theoretically can watch the movie. With DVD encryption in place, though, it is possible for the MPAA to place artificial restrictions on your viewing rights.

One such restriction mechanism is the regional coding system. DVD players can have one of seven possible codes, such as “1” for North America and “2” for Europe. DVD players can only play discs which match their regional codes. It’s perfectly legal to take a North American DVD player and disc to Europe and to watch it there. After all, you bought the right to watch the movie, and should be able to watch it where you please.

Because of CSS, though, all the DVDs bought in Europe play only on European DVD players. There are ways around the problem, like using multi-region DVD players, but all of these involve additional expense and hassle. There’s a reason for the MPAA to temporarily restrict viewing regions, but CSS curtails your rights permanently, and makes you jump through hoops to get them back.

To make the regional coding system work, it had to be secret. Then, the MPAA could force creators of DVD players to agree to their terms and pay a hefty licensing fee in return for being let in on the secret.

However, this meant that major corporations, which need to make a profit, only developed DVD player software for Windows and Mac. Other operating systems, like GNU/Linux and FreeBSD, were out of luck. But remember: when you buy a DVD, you don’t buy the right to watch the movie merely on certain operating systems. You buy the right to watch the movie. Period.

Frustrated computer programmers found a solution to this dilemma by cracking the CSS code. This DeCSS code was distributed on several web sites, against which the MPAA promptly filed suit. The lawsuit is based mostly upon the nonsensical Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Among other things, it prohibited the dissemination of any device designed to circumvent protection measures for copyrighted data.

The law is incredibly vague, and proponents of DeCSS are having great fun with the word “device.” A program, after all, is only an implementation of an algorithm, which is no more a device than a partial derivative is. If posting the source code online is illegal, what about posting an English translation of the code? Reciting the code orally? Composing a haiku? If it’s legal to chant “e to the u du-dx,” then how can it be illegal to sing the DeCSS algorithm song?

These word games are funny, and, in fact, necessary for our legal system. They also point out how ridiculous the DMCA is. But don’t forget: there’s nothing complex about this. You don’t need to understand copyright law. You don’t need to understand the source code of the program. You don’t even need to know how to use a computer. The fact of the matter is, when you buy a DVD, you buy the right to watch a movie.

The MPAA’s CSS encryption scheme places unreasonable and, it can be argued, illegal limits on your rights. Implementations of DeCSS merely restore the rights taken from you. This is not illegal and shouldn’t be condemned. It, in fact, deserves our full support.